Georgia – The High Caucasus, Svaneti, Ushguli, Tbilisi and the Military Highway
It’s all about the mountains…
Before leaving the UK Georgia was assured to be a highlight of our trip on our way to Central Asia. I would spend hours pouring over maps of the Caucasus, working out possible routes, likely snow fall on mountain passes, places to visit etc etc. The whole region is also steeped in history as it forms a geographical bottleneck of the overland routes between the far east, middle east, Persia and Europe. For centuries the country was ruled by the Ottomans, Persians, Mongols and most recently the Russians as it provided a gateway (and control) for trade along the old silk road.
It would seem then that Georgia would have had a lot of outside influence but those living in the Caucasus Mountains remained untouched and overall, generally, unscathed. The villages of Upper Svaneti along with those of Tusheti further east rarely saw anyone during times of turmoil as most of the mountain passes to them were impassible. It also helped that the mountain people of Georgia were revered for their strength and savagery, even if this was only folklore. Many of the villages consist of a number of towers in which the villagers live and some of the larger settlements even have defensive towers. The towers are square in shape and have several floors with cattle on the bottom, kitchen, then sleeping rooms on the upper levels. The door to the tower was accessed by a ladder which, if attacked the villagers could hoist up into the tower to prevent invaders getting in. They also had slots in the tower to allow them to defend themselves. It was however well known that Svans ended up fighting among themselves more often than not as tribal feuds broke out between villages.
Our guidebook was a few years out of date and mentioned the very real possibility of violent attacks and even kidnapping of tourists and NGO workers in the Svaneti area. We asked around and the general consensus was that all was well in Svaneti although wildcamping was probably not a good idea. The problem was mostly due to the separatist region of Abkhazia which caused a massive movement of refugees including Svans from the area. It was also high in Chechen activity and under the control of the previous president the Police were not much use. Since Mikheil Saakashvil came to power things have gotten better (at least from an outsiders point of view) and Police have proper stations, regular pay and are seen in higher numbers, even in the mountainous areas. The situation in Abkhazia is now stable but not resolved and many refugees have not returned to their homes.
We passed through the uninspiring town of Zugdidi and wound our way up the mountains passing a large reservoir and climbing up to 2000m. The road got narrower and sections had been washed away by the torrent of the river coming down the valley. Landslides were being cleared along the way by heavy machinery as we drove along subsiding asphalt and various grades of roads. The winters must be harsh up here and landslides a common feature on the soft mountainsides during the spring and autumn rains. We were heading for Mestia which, as a UNESCO site, has some of the best preserved and restored Svan towers in Georgia. Mestia formed into a reasonably large town in the mountains during the times of communist rule due to its proximity of the biggest peaks in the area. Ushba, Shkhara, Shota Rustaveli and Jangi-Tau are all a short distance away with Elbrus forming the backdrop. Soviet climbers would often come here to brush up on their skills and work on fitness before tackling the ‘Snow Leopards’ of Central Asia (7000m peaks).
Our progress was halted by a brief stop in Latali, a non-descript Svan village on the road to Mestia. I only stopped for a photo when an old man rattling off in Russian insisted we join him for a drink. We entered what we thought was his house (but still not sure) and sat down where we were presented with an abundance of food and then a toast… followed by another toast and then another. By four in the afternoon Lisa was drunk and I was not far behind. The family (who lived in the house) invited us to stay the night so we pulled the Land Rover into their yard and settled in for the night.
The following morning we made our way to Mestia, feeling slightly unwell. Bigger than expected we set about finding somewhere to stay and headed for what we thought may be a campsite. It was closed, but the opportunist neighbour gestured we could camp in their field which was good news. Their two dogs Belka and Donna also looked after us during the night even if they did seem to be barking at the moon.
From Mestia we planned our grueling off-road excursion to Ushguli for the following day. The maps and guides showed a road passing through Ushguli, looping around to the south and passing through the Lower Svaneti valley down to Kutaisi. This would be ideal for us but everyone we spoke to said it would probably be impassible due to snow and recent lack of use meant it was in poor condition. We took a chance and brought the trailer along anyway as we were unsure if we would stay in Ushguli of not. The 45 km road starts out with a potholed graded surface following the course of the river before it turns south, narrows, gets muddier and climbs high over a snowy mountain pass. A dozen tight hairpins on the descent take you into a small village before crossing the river several times on bridges of various states of disrepair heading east. Along an often precipitous route under cliffs and along cliff edges (with obligatory memorials) you finally emerge onto the grassy meadow under the amphitheatre of Mount Shkhara.
Ushguli stands as a cluster of small Svan villages with some of the oldest original towers dating back to the 4th century. It’s a timeless landscape here where cows and pigs roam the alleyways between ram shackled buildings and towers. There were not many people around but we did manage to get a bite to eat before deciding to head back to Mestia. The road onwards was indeed closed, under a metre of snow. We turned tail and trundled back to our campspot on the farm as it was getting dark. The whole journey took 7.5 hrs with only one hour or so in Ushguli. It was a rough and punishing day in the saddle.
Back in Mestia we were in a good place to try and get to Kutaisi the following day so we left early and followed the now familiar road back to Zugdidi and east toward Kutaisi. Looking for a wildcamp spot we came off the main road early but the unassuming road alongside a river turned out to have village after village for its entire length! Before we knew it we were on the outskirts of Kutaisi and needed to find somewhere to stay. We spotted the Hotel Imeri where we asked if we could camp behind its secluded outer wall. The receptionist went to find the owner, who turned out to be an English-speaking Georgian named Thomas. Thomas worked for many years in the north of England as an engineer for BP and worked as mountain rescue in the Caucasus before that, regaling stories of high peaks, avalanches, soviet climbers etc. We enjoyed our time with Thomas who the next morning provided us with an ‘English Breakfast’ albeit with Georgian ingredients. With a full meal in us we left the trailer at the Hotel and set off to see the sights. After two monasteries and a National Park we were left with little time to pick up supplies in town before getting on the road the following day.
Ticking off the highlights of Georgia outlined in our Bradt guide we made the long journey south along the Azerbaijan border with over 60 km of dirt track along sandy steppe to the David Goreji Monastery. The area is well known in Georgia due to the inhabiting monks being ousted under Soviet rule and then bombed by Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships who used it as target practice. This was due to the surrounding terrain having a close resemblance to that of Afghanistan. Finally allowed to return, the monks have re-built the cliff face monastery and continue to live there. Certain areas are restricted but you are allowed to enter and have a look around. As it was getting late we asked if we could camp nearby and we were shown a spot where we watched the sunset and the shepherds bringing back their flock, which was just as well as we heard what we still believe to be wolfs that night.
Entering Tbilisi we were none the wiser as to where to stay. The GPS showed the Nest Hostel in the Old Town so we made a route for that which took us through Freedom Square and some of the busiest streets in Tbilisi! We parked outside and went in where we met Heinz, an Aussie who doesn’t want to be an Aussie and has lived in the Nest Hostel for nearly 2 years. He loved Tbilisi and was an excellent fantasy artist too. Shortly after meeting Heinz we were introduced to Ali. Ali was Iranian by birth working for a Saudi based company remotely in Georgia! Another Tbilisi lover, he couldn’t get enough of the place. Beds were cheap at £8 per night and with only Heinz and Ali around it was a relaxing place to wile away your time. So relaxing and friendly was this capital city that we spent five nights there when we only wanted to stay for two! Our efforts to leave were hampered by Ali’s insistence to join him for drinks each night in Canados, a bar frequented by locals and ex-pats alike. The beers were cheap; the music was to our liking and the atmosphere great. One night we even ended up in a bizarre club where Homer Simpson T-Shirts were still fashionable. Tbilisi did indeed have a grip on us. The weather was good, the food was varied, cheap and amazing, the people smiled and the Nest Hostel provided some well needed respite.
Released from the grips of Tbilisi we needed to get some miles under us into Russia so we set-off up the Georgian Military Highway towards Kasbegi. The mountain pass has provided the only real sustainable route through the Caucasus for centuries and follows the Darial Gorge and the River Terek. The name Darial originates from Dar-e Alān meaning Gate of the Alans in Persian. The gorge, alternatively known as the Iberian Gates or the Caucasian Gates, is mentioned in the Georgian annals under the names of Darialani; Strabo calls it Porta Caucasica.
The Darial Pass was historically important as one of only two crossing of the Caucasus mountain range, the other being the Derbent Pass, and has been long fortified — at least since 150 BC. Ruins of an ancient fortress are still visible. The pass served as a hub point for many roads connecting North and South Caucasus,
and remained open for traffic for most of its existence. The gorge has been immortalized in Russian poetry, notably by Lermontov in The Demon; it has become known as one of the most romantic places in the Caucasus.
We wound our way up into the snowfield, through the ski resorts and then off tarmac through the avalanche galleries. Huge potholes tried to swallow our wheels as we weaved around mudholes and stuck vehicles threading the needle between 10ft high snow banks carved out continuously to keep the route open. Over the pass we descended and joined a police convoy through a few tunnels that were too narrow for two-way traffic. With all lights on we had to avoid giant holes, broken pipe work, metal bars cemented into the ground and icicles hanging from above. We made it to Kasbegi around 18:00 and kept our eye out for somewhere to stay when we were flashed by a Lada Niva in the centre of town. On striking up a conversation in Russian we negotiated the terms of our home stay with our new friend and then followed him home. A great family who provided a lovely meal that evening and the room was probably the best we had in Georgia, everything worked except the presence of a single shower door where two were needed.
10 inches of snow the following morning provided me with the opportunity to use the heated windscreen and mirrors again as we descended the 12 km to the border in low box with diff-locks engaged. One scary moment saw us locking up and I had to accelerate toward and into an unlit tunnel. No gritters and ploughs here, it was every man for himself as we watched Lada Niva’s with snow chains, old Volga cars and Russian Land Cruisers making their way along the road which hangs under granite cliffs towering above as the river rages below swelled by snowmelt.
Time spent waiting at the border gave us the opportunity to reflect on Georgia and our time spent there. We had been in-country for nearly three weeks, traversed nearly its entire length and taken in all the highlights. Georgia for me was to be one of the many highlights along our route to Siberia and it did not disappoint. The people were very welcoming and generous, the landscape breathtaking and the towns and cities clean and vibrant. Accommodation and food are cheap so it is an ideal place to travel and spend some time. Speaking some Russian does help and I challenge any traveler to pick up and fully understand the Georgian Alphabet! But you can get by in English as in most places. We rarely return to countries twice but we will return to the Caucasus region in the future, that I know for certain.